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Today, By David Miller

As Joseph Conrad lay dying

The short novel usually justifies its brevity by tautness of writing and fierce concentration on a single event involving few characters.

Well, Today is very short and covers the five days in August 1924 that encompassed the death and funeral of Joseph Conrad, but it is prefaced by a four-page dramatis personae: a mixture of the exalted ("Edward Garnett, 56, a publisher's reader, later a critic") and the anonymous ("A gravedigger of indeterminate age").

The book opens with Lilian Hallowes, typist to Conrad, on her way by train to stay with the family. Lilian is a keen reader but has not brought a book. Luckily, a fellow passenger leaves behind a copy of Howards End. Lilian feels a "throb of bewildered excitement" at appropriating the book, succeeded by sub-Jamesian guilt: "She worried she might be found out. For what precisely she could have been found out she would not have been sure had she bothered to ask herself the question." Other things confuse Lilian. Has she had a fling with Joseph or is she imagining it? Uncertain about anatomy, she fondly remembers the "grey-green pupils" of his eyes.

Dim Lilian is nearly enough to capsize the book, but things improve at the Conrad household. Gravely ill, Conrad is confined to his room. Family and friends gather below. It might have been better to have handed the narration to Richard Curle, an interesting portrait of a whisky-sipping journalist. As it is, the reader's attention is dissipated by too many characters.

The fraternal war between Conrad's two sons is well-handled. They suffer, as the young often do in the face of death, from sudden attacks of nervous, self-protective laughter. There is a good comic doctor, advising that the dying man have all his teeth out. Conrad's invalid wife, Jessie, is also well-drawn. We could have done with more of her thoughts about her past life with Joseph.

Instead, this examination of family grief is overwhelmed by descriptions of trivial physical activity. There is far too much walking about and standing still, looking out of windows and staring down at carpets. Characters struggle relentlessly with burdensome clothes as if they had been issued with the wrong outfits by a malicious costume designer. An encomium by Cynthia Ozick compares Today with "the pellucidly unadorned purity almost of Genesis". It is a first book, and it has its merits, but not quite on that scale.